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Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Page: 891

Mr BROADBENT (1:28 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, I am sorry you are leaving the chair at this stage because you were so much a part of the success of the former government. When we hear from the member for Newcastle about the situation she has just raised with the OneSteel employees, we know it is the fact the government has been handed a Holden Statesman, state-of-the-art, powerful economy that is going to allow those people who have lost their positions, or who have been made redundant, to go on and get a job. Their skills will be claimed and nurtured by the rest of Newcastle. That would not have been the case before the Howard government came to power.

I am reminded that, over these last 10 years, there were those who made constant criticisms of the Howard government. No government will ever go without criticism. Also, it is very easy to be against something—for 10 years, it was very easy for people to be against whatever the Howard government did—but it is very hard to be for something, to look at what could be the best for our community and to chase that down, to look at ways that we can encourage people into the workforce and grow our workforce right across the nation. I cannot forget the power of small businesses as a result of the changes to the industrial relations that we are talking about today.

These changes started in the Hawke-Keating years and went through into the Howard years. Perhaps the Australian people said at the last election, ‘You’ve taken them one step too far.’ But what we have today is the political reaction. The legislation before us today, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, is the political reaction to the election that we have just had and to the conversation that we had with the Australian people about Labor’s position as against the government’s position over the 12 months in the run-up to the election. But we should understand that this new Labor government has a debt of $20 million to pay to the union movement. Part of this legislation is clearly to pay that debt. Coming out of small business myself, my concern is that the response of the new government will go too far and it will begin to offend the strong economy that has been handed to it.

In an interview with Gerard Callinan—radio ABC Gippsland—former minister Peter McGauran, the member for Gippsland, was asked: ‘What was so different about your seat of Gippsland and Russell Broadbent’s seat of McMillan in this election campaign? And what was the difference in the state election?’ Peter McGauran explained that Gippsland does not take its current prosperity for granted. We are different. I know there are parts of Australia that have gone through massive change and that people have had to reskill or go into different areas, but Gippsland has been different.

On the industrial relations front, our unions know very well that their local members have supported them over a long period of time. Going right back to when I was the member for McMillan from 1996 to 1998, I remember how we were working through the regional forest agreements with the support of the union movement. There were changes in the pulp and paper industry. There were changes in the dairy industry that we had to deal with. There was the loss of white-collar jobs throughout the whole of Gippsland. There were massive changes to the power industry with its privatisation. That caused very high levels of unemployment and enormous pressure on the community.

As members of parliament—and I describe Peter McGauran; me; Gary Blackwood, the member for Narracan; and Russell Northe, the member for Morwell—we are but reflections of our community, the times that we have been through and the unions that we have worked with. Industrial relations is very, very important to us—the power industry, the pulp and paper industry and the enterprise agreements. Small businesses were very happy with the unfair dismissal provisions that the coalition government put in place; they made changes to the legislation of the previous government. The extremity of what we went through as a community meant that the whole of Gippsland was a hair-trigger for the nation. The reason the attack from Labor fell on deaf ears across Gippsland was that the unions—the people in the community—knew that their members in parliament were reflecting their concerns in this place and wherever else they needed to.

From Peter McGauran’s activity and his support for me in regard to dairy farmers most recently, I know that he is listening closely to his community. Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, after receiving a phone call from home, I can report that it has been raining in Gippsland since early this morning. You might think that that is no big deal for Gippsland. Queensland has been having enormous problems with rain, but we have been aching for rain for a long time. So, on behalf of my dairy farmers and my local community, I want to let you know that it is raining in Gippsland and that that is good news. Good news was part of our election campaign. We talked about the positives. The negative was not going to run in McMillan and Gippsland because we had taken a long time to get to this point of prosperity.

It was embarrassing to have 25 per cent of the kids in your area out of work. There was no answer for it. What were you going to say—75 per cent got a job? What about when 18 per cent of your community could not get a job? In some parts of Gippsland unemployment is still high. What we saw with the Howard government’s strong and careful economic management and in the thrust of industry and small businesses down the eastern seaboard of Australia—and no-one can disagree with this—was the creation of some 250,000 jobs. That was only in the last three years. It is about real people with real jobs. What were those jobs? My argument here is that, if Labor are going to overreact on this issue, they will do damage to those people who received those jobs—and they were not part-time jobs.

What would an employer do if they were worried about an employee coming on? They would put them on part time and if it did not work out they would cut their hours. What did they do this time? In this last three-year period, they put them on full time, 95 per cent of them worked out, the employers were happy, the employees were happy and nearly 250,000 people got jobs. This has got to the point where the unemployment figures across Gippsland that I just talked about, which were so high, have come down to less than five per cent over most parts of Gippsland. That is remarkable. It is remarkable for the nation that the unemployment rate could be down to 4.1 per cent. It must have galled the opposition during the Howard government years that there were such remarkable economic figures and such remarkable budget surpluses.

Ms George —Talk about the bill.

Mr BROADBENT —I am talking about the bill. This is what this bill is all about: the relationship between employer and employee. It is not true, as Labor have promoted, that every employer is a rogue. That is the message that you were sending across. You sent that to big business and small business. Your shadow spokesman at the time threatened them with retribution if they did not fall into line, and had to be called to account. Who by? By the then opposition leader, Mr Rudd. He had to call the now Deputy Prime Minister of this country to account. However, I digress.

This is about the relationship between employer and employee. This argument has been going on in this place for 100 years. I do not believe that Labor in office will make the sorts of changes that you are promoting that you will make. I do not think that you will be able to pay this $20 million debt to the union movement. I do not think that they will get all they want from you, because there are people out there who know that this country will run better while we have this industrial relations program. I am quite supportive of what you have put forward, because you have individual workplace agreements. I am supportive of that. I cannot go back on what I have said before. I am a person who supports flexibility in the workplace, and I will continue to support flexibility in the workplace.

There has never been a time when you could not join a union in this country and could not have the union go in to bat for you. I will give you an example. I will go back a bit and I will talk about the relationship between the unions and me, because it is important. When we were doing those regional forests agreements, the CFMEU rang me and said, ‘We are not at that roundtable that you are about to have with the Prime Minister.’ I rang Graeme Morris, who at the time was the PM’s offsider. I said, ‘Graeme, the CFMEU want to be at the table.’ He said, ‘I’ll have to talk to the boss’—John Howard—‘about that.’ He did. The member for O’Connor sat next to the Prime Minister at that roundtable. I knew that my unions in my area were represented at that table. That is how we work.

I say to the members in the House that our relationship and what we did—and when I say ‘we’ I am talking about Gary Blackwood, the Russell North representatives, Peter McGauran and I—were totally in support of workers and unions in our area. We have never moved from that. And, by the way, they did not forget it at the last election, either. They did not forget who had been their supporter and who had looked after them and represented them in this place. That is why they voted the way they did in McMillan: because they had a representative, they knew that they had a representative and they supported that representative.

There were people who felt that they needed collective bargaining support. There is no doubt about that. They had their say. Obviously, 40 per cent of people were concerned about Work Choices. Whether Work Choices was the catalyst for discontent with the government or time was up, nobody knows. But what we do know is that the people of Australia have spoken, and I for one respect what they have said. I believe that the shadow minister, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, has very clearly stated her case and been very clear about where we stand as a party and what we are prepared to put forward to this parliament. But you must remember that there are consequences. If you get this wrong, there will be consequences. Governments cannot afford to get things like this wrong, because they affect the lives of individual people.

A lot of people have gained employment in this country under the excellent economic management of the Howard government. We have had very low unemployment and reasonable interest rates—especially compared to what I have been used to in the past, when interest rates were 22 per cent for small businesses and 18 per cent for households and you had something like 20 per cent of people unemployed. I remember those things. I do not expect everybody in the House to remember those things. I do. I see interest rates at eight per cent, and that is what I was paying 35 years ago when we moved into our house.

These things are important for the daily lives of people. As I said the other day, these laws are important because they affect those at the bottom level of employment—such as those people along the eastern seaboard who got jobs under the Howard government. I believe that the Howard government will be seen by history as having a proud record of economic management and that the Treasurer of the day, Peter Costello, will be seen to have managed this economy very well. Who were the beneficiaries of that? Not the old union movement, with their ‘We’ll keep the jobs for our boys, thank you very much, and lock in the jobs for them.’ Instead, the jobs filtered down to those who were less skilled, unskilled and unable to get a job. If we have one responsibility as parliamentarians in this place it is to have regard to those people who are least able.

Ms George —You abandoned them.

Mr BROADBENT —That is one thing that we did not do. We did not abandon them. We got a whole lot of those people into work. What could happen here if the elastic band that has been pulled by the Labor Party on industrial relations is let go and springs back too far is that the least able to get employment will be first affected, not those who have already locked in a job in the union movement.

A reasonable amendment will be put before this House, which could be easily accommodated by the Labor government except for the political charge against them by the union movement. If that charge were not there—if they were prepared to consider a reasonable amendment put forward—then we could go on progressively. Whilst the arrangements in this bill being discussed today are important, the real hit will come later, when the government proposes greater reform. This is the response to the election campaign. The greater response to the changing of awards, which will come later on in the parliamentary term, is the one that the Australian nation will have to watch more carefully. If the government are going to try to pull us back even further than where we have been in the past, those who are least able will pay the highest price. These are important issues for the nation; otherwise, we would not be addressing them. They are not, and never have been, the only issues.

This morning I was thinking through these issues and I came to think about my own family and our employment of people over a long period of time. I know that there are those who have worked with us who speak very well of my dad and mum and our family as employers. I know that most of the people who employ people in this country, especially in small business, cherish their workers. Are there a few rotten apples in life? Yes. And that will continue to be the case. Yes, we do need workplace arrangements that allow people to be protected. I think that with what we have come to put in place here, if there is a safety net, people will feel more comfortable. But let us not do anything in the legislation on industrial relations laid down by this House to offend the economy as a whole.

When the economic modelling for the changes proposed in Labor’s legislation comes out, we need to be on guard to make sure that this is not just an ideological push because we want one thing and they want another. This should be about what will benefit the nation as a whole and benefit our young people into the future. Yes, it was clear to me that there were some people, grandparents particularly, who worried about whether their children would be able to join a union and be protected. Yes, they can now and they have been able to in the past. As I said, we will be supporting this legislation, but I commend the proposed amendment to the House.